MELBOURNE – Patricia A. McDonough remembers the woman asked to pinpoint a truly significant moment in her life, and she recalled an incident that a lot of others might have quickly forgotten about.
“This lady lived in a poor area, and a neighbor asked her to empty a chamber pot,” McDonough said. The woman agreed to help, and that simple gesture turned out to be a surprisingly life-altering moment. But why?
“Now she’s a registered nurse,” McDonough said, adding that this act of kindness demonstrated to the woman that she’d discovered her calling: assisting others who are ill and need help.
“It may sounds like an insignificant event, but it was a turning point for her,” McDonough said.
For a lot of people, McDonough added, tiny moments like this can be the ones that prove to be the most important, once you take a minute to look back on your life and figure out what events put you where you are today.
McDonough should know. She’s a copyeditor, writing coach, publishing consultant and executive director of Terra Sancta Press, a publishing house based in Melbourne. She has a special interest in a particular kind of non-fiction: people who want to write their memoirs, either as a special gift for their family, or, if they think they’ve got a great story, for a wider audience. And McDonough is ready to help those who think they’ve got plenty of material for a really good memoir … but have no clue how to assemble their story. She has a good idea of where they should start.
“A memoir is usually like a slice of time,” McDonough said. “The way you can get past your block is to write your own obituary. Write a six word obituary that is kind of fun, and sums up your life.”
After thinking up those six words, she said, stop and ask where that leads you. If you were writing your own obituary for a local newspaper, what would you want people to remember about you – the highlights of the life you led?
“If you do the six words, then write in your real newspaper obituary,” she said. “The idea is you could list the high points of your life. It’s kind of a good summary to start from. You can choose the shorter one or the full journalistic spread – how you want to be remembered. I think these are fun – ‘I did this and this and this.’ You put the high points above the line, or the low points above the line. You should be thinking all along what you want your story to be. Maybe your six-word obituary is your title or your theme – or maybe it’s not. You may want to go into greater depth.”
As a book publisher, McDonough hears from a lot of people who think they’ve got an interesting true tale to tell, but don’t know how to go about it. She works with people who want to do everything from create a great Christmas gift for their grandchildren in the form of a book, to those who see a national or even international audience for their writing.
One trend that McDonough has noticed, though, is how powerful it can be for people to sit down and review their lives through the lens of a memoir.
“I find that working with authors, whether it’s a memoir or not, it’s a therapeutic process,” she said.
If she has a second piece of advice for them, it’s this: don’t do it alone. Reach out to other people in your family, circle of friends, and at the critical jobs you’ve held, and ask them for advice on important moments in your life.
“Ask other people what they think,” she said. “It may not be the same viewpoint as yours. But it’s helpful to ask. You can get a lot of insight from what they tell you. It’s a good idea to interview your elders. Be pretty organized so that you’re knowing what to ask.”
Memoirs don’t have to cover an entire life story, from birth to present day. It could be about specific things: your career, your family, or your commitment to a cause.
“You probably want to break it up into the chapters of your life,” she said. “You’re writing what’s called vignettes. Vignettes have a beginning and end. They’re little stories. You want some kind of reason for telling the story – not just to unload.”
McDonough has her own experience in this field. She’s the author of the non-fiction book “Without Keys: My 15 Weeks With the Street People,” which chronicles the story of she found herself homeless in the middle of winter in Minneapolis. In those 15 weeks, she met other homeless people during this odreal.
“My way of dealing with that was to write this book,” she said. “My purpose in writing this was to say who is homeless.”
While homelessness is often blamed on a variety of reasons – including alcohol or drug abuse and mental illness – McDonough said she also found women who had been abused, high school students who had dropped out and run away from home, ex-convicts who couldn’t find a job – even a priest at retirement age who was told the order had gone into bankruptcy and no longer had retirement funds.
Others, she said, had been living from paycheck to paycheck and then lost their job, and a few had been bankrupted when they got sick and their medical expenses skyrocketed.
“This was a real groundbreaking book,” she said. “It didn’t stop homelessness. We still have a lot of homeless today because of all the home foreclosures going on.
“My way of telling my story,” she added, ”was to do it as a reporter telling other people’s stories. It covers 15 weeks of my life. It was just a little piece of my life.”
Those who do want to publish their story, she said, have a few options.
“I do two kinds of publishing,” McDonough said. “One is I buy the rights to the book and all the derivatives, and I publish the book.”
The author can also self-publish.
“I assist them in preparing the book, and they pay the expenses,” she said, adding that after that, just how hard working and ambitious they are will determine how wide an audience they reach.
“To get your book into Barnes & Noble is very difficult,” McDonough said. “You have to write a PhD thesis on it. It’s essentially a marketing plan. It’s not impossible, but it’s very difficult. Most of the people I’ve coached have not gotten into Barnes & Noble because they’ve given up.”
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